The Loss of the Countess of Seafield
By Jack Loney
Wreck enthusiast Jack Loney describes the short and disastrous career of a little known China tea clipper.
An article published in the:
AUSTRALIAN SEA HERITAGE
Number 36, Spring 1993 pp. 11-12
A barque similar in construction to the Countess of Seafield
Recently, a family friend from Hobart asked me to research the history of the barque Countess of Seafield which his ancestors owned in the 1860s. He knew very little about her except that she was rumoured to have spent some time in the China Tea trade, and was eventually wrecked in the early 1870s.

A wooden vessel of 432 tons, built at South Stockton in 1852 on dimensions of 124.6 x 28.2 x 19.1 feet, she was probably typical of thousands of vessels trading around the world in that era, and 1 set out to trace her career, expecting few highlights.

Aberdeen-designed tea clippers of the 1840s were the first to challenge the supremacy of the American- built ships which had an enviable reputation for speed and reliability, developed from the famous Baltimore clipper- designed long, low, flush decked brigs and schooners.

For years the American opium and tea clippers had competed successfully with the slow lumbering ships of the East India Company, loading tea at Canton then racing back to New York and Boston.

The famous British shipbuilder Alexander Hall built more than fifty clippers for the tea trade between 1841 and 1850, and his model was soon copied by other Aberdeen shipbuilders.

A short distance south at South Stockton, T. Turnbull had been influenced by Hall when he built the
Countess of Seafield for Brown & Company. Designed with the stern carried right up to the cutwater to give her a long sharp bow, she had one deck, a square stern and a female figurehead.

On her first voyage home with tea in 1852-53, under Captain Gibson, she left Shanghai on 17 September, 1852, arriving in London on I6 January, 1853, the voyage occupying 121 days. This was a creditable eleventh fastest time in a fleet of 34 vessels which included racers like the Chrysolite, Foam and Joseph Fletcher.

The following year, commanded by Captain Innes she sailed from Whampoa on 26 December, and arrived in London on 29 April, 1855. This voyage occupied 124 days and was the twentieth fastest time, relatively slow in a fleet of 33 vessels.

Between the years 1848-55 another clipper named
Countess of Seafield, built at Aberdeen also ran in the tea trade.

Our
Countess of Seafield did not return to China following her second voyage, but continued as a general trader to ports around the world.

Late in December 1863, commanded by Captain Danvers,
Countess of Seafield left London for Lyttelton with passengers and a large cargo which included rails for the railway at Canterbury.

When she limped into Hobart Town on 1 June, 1864, six months later her decks were a shambles and ten men had been swept overboard and drowned in a great gale which struck when she was crossing the southern Indian Ocean. It was a miracle the vessel survived to reach port.

When she was overtaken by a west to southwest gale on 27 April, all that could be done was to run before it. That night the sea rose and just before midnight the overloaded vessel was pooped by a huge sea which carried away the wheel, the binnacle, the companion hatch, stove in the skylight, damaged the half-deck house and injured the Chief Officer.

She was brought into the wind and temporary steering gear was rigged, but at about 5.30 the next morning another sea swept over her carrying away the mainrail, deckhouse, nine of the crew and a passenger.

One of the crew lost was asleep in his bunk in the deckhouse when it was wrenched from its solid iron fastenings and swept over the side. The passenger who lost his life was most unfortunate as he had volunteered to go on deck to make hot coffee for the crew who seemed to be losing the battle to save the ship.

When the deckhouse went over the side it left a gaping hole in the deck, allowing the sea to rush in. At one time there was almost two metres of water in the hold and the passengers were called to the pumps as the barque, with her sails torn to shreds, wallowed helplessly in huge seas.

Eventually the storm abated allowing the surviving crew and passengers to set about temporary repairs. Captain Danvers decided to alter course for Hobart Town and after an anxious month she reached port.

After more repairs the
Countess of Seafield resumed her voyage to Lyttelton where she arrived on 27 August, more than eight months after leaving London. She remained idle at Lyttelton for almost a year before sailing back to Hobart Town on 20 July, 1865. When the Countess of Seafield first berthed at Hobart Town on 1 June, 1864, several passengers, realising she would be delayed there some time, continued their voyage on the barque Christina which left on 12 June, and arrived at Lyttelton on 1 July.

Salvage claims awarded to the passengers who helped save the stricken barque were so high the owners abandoned her to the underwriters who put her up for sale. Shipping Agent, William Crosby (32 shares), and prominent Hobart merchant Henry Pearce (32 shares) purchased her on 17 April, 1866 and she traded profitably to overseas ports for several years under the command of Pearce's son William.

On 23 June, 1870 she left Hobart Town for Newcastle where she loaded coal, then sailed on 14 July, for Mauritius to discharge, then load sugar for Hobart Town.

On 2 August, after 19 days at sea she stranded on a reef named
Bramble Cay at the eastern end of Torres Strait and was abandoned. The crew was picked up and taken on to Java, possibly by a passing whaler. Some of her gear and stores were salvaged. An extract from the diary of a lady on board the ship Nation's Hope, bound from Newcastle to the East Indies noted oft 18 August, just over a fortnight after the wreck: "Entrance to the Strait. Nice wind. Vessel stranded on the reef - supposed to be Bramble Cay. We are afraid it is the Norwegian we lost sight of. We are tacking to see if anyone is on board. We see the wreck now from the deck. All are straining their eyes to see if there are any signals of distress. Various ideas as to who she can be. Arrived within half a mile of her. No one on board. She does not look a bit like a wreck with her sails furled. We shall anchor here for the night. Bramble Cay looks rather pretty with golden coloured sandhills, the tops covered with a rich green mossy foliage. A boat sent to the rocks, 5 o'clock - boat returned overladen. Looks quite dangerous. We rushed to the side of the vessel to receive them and hear the news. The ship is the Countess of Seafield. She left Newcastle a day before or after us. They think she must have had a companion with her as nearly everything is cleared out. We are glad they had so much time poor things. Our party brought some bags of potatoes. There are on board several casks of beef and tanks of water. But it is not safe to go again, as she is filling fast. We found a letter directed to some young lady at Hobart Town which we shall forward."
The lady subsequently wrote that fragments of the ship floated past them next day. Eventually, Captain Pearce, her master, returned to Hobart Town while the first and second mates arrived back in Melbourne on 10 November.

One of the arms from the ship's figurehead returned to Hobart Town with Captain Pearce and is now displayed in the maritime museum at Battery Point. The well known diver Ben Cropp told me that in 1977 he discovered the remains of what he believed is the
Countess of Seafield lying in about four fathoms, with one anchor upright in the coral, and parts from the masts lying nearby. Little else was visible and no good relics were recovered. He told me another wreck of an unidentified sailing ship was found on the northern side of the Cay with bolts stamped from muntz metal.

The ship wasTasmanian owned and the master wasCaptain Alf Pearce of Hobart when lost.
Click to enlarge
The arm from the figurehead of Countess Of Seafield is on display at the Maritime Museum of Tasmania 16 Argyle St., Hobart, Tasmania.
Countess of Seafield - Wreck report "Countess of Seafield. Barque,  432 tons. Stranded, abandoned, on Bramble Cay, a reef at the eastern end of Torres Strait, 23 June 1870. Crew saved." Ref: Ency of Australian Shipwrecks
The Lyttelton Times article 1864
The
painting of the Countess of Seafield 1866.
The
cargo manifest for the Countess of Seafield 1864.
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Updated 17 Aug 2008              (C) Gary Danvers                  Page opened 10 Nov 2004
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